NEW YORK – The New York Knicks said all of the right things on Wednesday night, and they won – even if they didn’t seem overwhelmingly interested in doing so.
Although they’d never admit it, the Knicks probably agree with the general consensus that they might match up better with the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs over the second-seeded, defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat. But, New York (35-30) was far too smart to let a misguided slip of the tongue give either of those teams any sort of motivating bulletin board material.
Instead, the Knicks, one by one, simply followed the company line of interim head coach Mike Woodson, collectively saying they have no preference on which team they’d prefer to meet in the postseason.
While his team wasn’t exactly ducking Miami, Woodson’s strategy down the stretch of New York’s 99-93 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers (40-26) at a sold out Madison Square Garden appeared to indicate just the opposite.
Allowing a game-high 18-point, fourth-quarter lead to nearly slip away, Woodson’s starters saw very limited action down the stretch as the Knicks’ reserves survived a furious late run by the Clippers – who played without superstar point guard Chris Paul (mildly sprained left groin) – to remain tied with the Philadelphia 76ers (35-30) for seventh place in the East heading into the regular season’s final night on Thursday.
Sans Anthony in the final period, it turned out that New York didn’t need its uniform number seven to remain in the chase for seed number seven.
The Knicks’ best player, forward Carmelo Anthony (17 points and six rebounds in just over 28 minutes) was benched for the final 14:40, before saying, “It really doesn’t matter as far as who we play [Chicago or Miami, in the playoffs]… I am glad we pulled it off with [our bench] out there… it gave them some late game experience.”
Anthony sounded genuinely happy about that and for the win, which came on Fan Appreciation Night. Yet, a far more candid answer might have revealed that a loss, dropping the Knicks to the eight seed, might not have been terribly disappointing, either.
When asked point blank if the Knicks didn’t mind letting their lead completely disappear to fall to the eight position in the East, Anthony laughed and responded, “Come on, man. Next question.”
Just prior to Anthony’s comments, Woodson told the media, “I have great confidence with the guys who come off the bench. I am a coach who wants to see who makes plays.”
That may be very true, but you can also safely bet the size of the max contracts of both Anthony and of fellow Knick forward Amar’e Stoudemire combined, that Woodson would rather those types of plays be made by the likes of his starters – especially Anthony and Stoudemire – in postseason fourth quarters.
“At this point, either,” said Stoudemire (ten points and seven rebounds in close to 29 minutes) on the desired choice of facing the Bulls or Heat in the first round of the playoffs, to begin on Saturday. “Both teams are great. It is going to be a tough battle regardless.”
Once again, the right thing to say publicly, but not the most honest answer for a player who is as competitive as Stoudemire, yet who didn’t seem to mind watching the Knicks’ big lead all but vanish after he joined Anthony and other Knick starters on the bench for the final 6:29 of the game.
Starting center Tyson Chandler (11 points, five rebounds in almost 32 minutes), in his eleventh season and first with the Knicks, was selected second overall by the Clippers in the 2001 NBA draft before being traded to Chicago, where he spent the first five years of his career.
Chandler though, isn’t overly concerned with wanting to knock his former team out of the playoffs. “My whole thing is to win,” he said. “We win out [to finish the regular season], and let the cards fall where they may.”
He added, “Chicago has had the best record in the league the last two years, so why does everybody jump ahead and say, ‘Oh, you should dodge Miami and play Chicago?’ You can pick your poison on them. We have to believe in ourselves enough that it doesn’t matter who we play.”
Indeed, whom the Knicks play may not matter as much as how they play in the postseason, but their regular season results may suggest otherwise.
New York has lost three times each to Miami and Chicago this season, but while the Knicks were swept by the Heat by an average of 10.7 points, they beat the Bulls once (at home, in overtime), and lost three close games to Chicago by an average of just 5.3 points.
Seeing Los Angeles climb back into the game, Chandler asked back onto the court with 3:15 left after sitting out the first 8:45 of the final quarter.
“I told Coach I wanted to go back in,” the Knicks’ defensive anchor said. “We lost the coverage a little bit defensively and guys started to get open. I wanted to calm my guys a little bit.”
That presence was much needed down the stretch, with Anthony and Stoudemire already on the bench late, and New York’s starting backcourt also being rested for most of the stretch run – point guard Baron Davis (12 points) sat for the final 19:06 of the game and shooting guard Iman Shumpert (six points, seven rebounds) was benched for a span of 14:51 before playing the final minute of the contest.
Leading the Knicks to a 43-20 advantage in bench scoring were guards J.R. Smith (who scored 16 second-half points to lead New York with 21 points) and Steve Novak (14 points), the NBA’s leading three-point shooter, who made four of seven shots from behind the arc.
Having six different Knicks score in double figures (and nearly a seventh, with forward Landry Fields posting eight points) helped offset the production of the only two Clippers to score in double figures – star forward Blake Griffin (29 points) and guard Randy Foye (28 points).
Six points from Smith and five apiece from Stoudemire and Novak highlighted an 18-6 New York run that gave the Knicks a 90-72 lead with 7:25 to go. The spurt began on a Smith jumper with 2.9 seconds left in the third quarter and ended on a crowd-pleasing alley-oop dunk from Fields off of a nice fast break pass by Smith.
Twenty-four seconds later, Knick fans made it clear who they want their team to face in the postseason with chants of “Beat the Heat!” after they had been made aware during the third quarter that Orlando clinched the six seed in the East and a playoff matchup against third-seeded Indiana with a home win over hapless Charlotte.
There was still work left for the Knicks to do to stay in a serious race for the seven seed though, as Griffin scored 11 points to key a 21-4 run that brought the Clippers to within 94-93. Griffin ended the spurt on a tough, running hook shot in the lane against tight defense by Chandler, with 52.3 seconds left.
Smith answered with a jumper to increase New York’s lead to 96-93 with 31.7 seconds remaining before Foye threw the ball off the backboard, looking inside for Griffin. Novak secured the loose ball and passed to Smith, who was fouled. Smith sank a pair of free throws to push the Knicks’ lead to 98-93 with 23.5 seconds left.
A desperation three-pointer by Foye resulted in an airball, and Chandler made one of two free throws to close the scoring and send the Knicks into the final night of the regular season with the odds heavily on their side to clinch the seven seed in the East – if they want it.
“Coach Woodson is going to figure out if we (the starters) play [significant minutes on Thursday night],” said Stoudemire. “Whatever his call is, we will be open to it.”
The Knicks, who will travel to Charlotte for their final regular season road game of the season, will clinch the seven seed in the East if they send the Charlotte Bobcats (7-58) to a 23rd straight loss, or if the 76ers lose in Detroit on Thursday night. New York holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over Philadelphia after beating the 76ers in two of three regular season meetings.
Los Angeles finished its season 16-17 away from home, missing a chance to avoid a losing road record for the first time in the 41-year history of the franchise. More importantly, the Clippers need the Memphis Grizzlies (40-25) to lose to Orlando at home on Thursday night to clinch the four seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Otherwise, Los Angeles will have to face Memphis as the West’s five seed, with the Grizzlies enjoying the home court advantage in that series.
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Notes: Each quarter of the game closed with New York pulling away in a tight game. The Knicks ended the first quarter on a 12-6 run to lead 24-19; scored the final eight points of the opening half to lead 48-39 at halftime; wrapped the third period on a 13-7 spurt to lead 74-66; and finished the game on a 5-0 run… Since former head coach Mike D’Antoni resigned on March 14th with the Knicks at 18-24, New York has gone 17-6 under Woodson, including 11-1 at home; the Knicks finished 22-11 at MSG, for a .667 home winning percentage, their best in 11 years… New York Jets Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes sat courtside in the front row and were largely booed; later, New York Giants Super Bowl champion Chris Snee, sitting in the fourth row, was welcomed with a loud ovation…
In addition to the “Beat the Heat!” chants, fans also yelled “Let’s go, Rangers!” during the fourth quarter in anticipation of MSG’s first hockey Game 7 in 18 years to take place in the Garden on Thursday night, with the New York Rangers hosting a deciding first-round NHL playoff game against the Ottawa Senators.
Source: all quotes recorded and transcribed, and photo taken by Jonathan Wagner while covering the Los Angeles Clippers-New York Knicks game for New York Sports Day, at Madison Square Garden, in New York, on April 25, 2012.